Tuesday, September 13, 2016

13/9/16: U.S. business investment slump: oil spoil?

Credit Suisse The Financialist recently asked a very important question: How low can U.S. business investment go? The question is really about the core drivers of the U.S. recovery post-GFC.

As The Financialist notes: “Over the last 50 years, there has usually been just one reason that businesses have slashed investment levels for prolonged periods of time—because the economy was down in the dumps.”

There is a handy chart to show this much.

“Not this time”, chimes The Financialist. In fact, “Private, nonresidential fixed investment fell 1.3 percent in real terms over the previous year in the second quarter of 2016, the third consecutive quarterly decline.” This the second time over the last 50 years that this has happened without there being an ongoing recession in the U.S.

Per Credit Suisse, the entire problem is down to oil-linked investment. And in part they are right. Latest figures reported by Bloomberg suggest that oil majors are set to slash USD1 trillion from global investment and spending on exploration and development. This is spread over 6 years: 2015-2020. So, on average, we are looking at roughly USD160 bn in capex and associated expenditure cuts globally, per annum. Roughly 2/3rds of this is down to cuts by the U.S. companies, and roughly 2/3rds of the balance is capex (as opposed to spending). Which brings potential cuts to investment by U.S. firms to around USD70 billion per annum at the upper envelope of estimates.

Incidentally, similar number of impact from oil price slump can be glimpsed from the fact that over 2010-2015, oil companies have issued USD1.2 trillion in debt, most of which is used for funding multi annual investment allocations.

Wait, that is hardly a massively significant number.

Worse, consider shaded areas marking recessions. Notice the ratio of trough to peak recoveries in investment in previous recessions. The average for pre-2007 episode is a 1:3 ratio (per one unit recovery, 3 units growth post-recovery). In the current episode it was (at the peak of the recovery) 1:0.6. Worse yet, notice that in all previous recoveries, save for dot.com bubble crisis and most recent Global Financial Crisis, recoveries ended up over-shooting pre-recession level of y/y growth in capex.

Another thing to worry about for 'oil's the devil' school of thought on corporate investment slowdown: slump in oil-related investment should be creating opportunities for investment elsewhere. One example: Norway, where property investments are offsetting fully decline in oil and gas related investment. When oil price drops, consumers and companies enjoy reallocation of resources and purchasing power generated from energy cost savings to other areas of demand and investment. Yet, few analysts can explain why contraction in oil price (and associated drop in oil-related investment) is not fuelling investment boom anywhere else in the economy.

To me, the reason is simple. Investing companies need three key factors to undertake capex:
1) Surplus demand compared to supply;
2) Technological capacity for investment; and
3) Policy and financial environment that is conducive to repatriation of returns from investment.

And guess what, they have none of these in the U.S.

Surplus demand creates pressure factor for investment, as firms face rapidly increasing demand with stable or slowly rising capacity to supply this demand. That is what happens in a normal recovery from a crisis. Unfortunately, we are not in a normal recovery. Consumer and corporate demand are being held down by slow growth in incomes, significant legacy debt burdens on household and corporate balance sheets, and demographics. Amplified sense of post-crisis vulnerability is also contributing to elevated levels of precautionary savings. So there is surplus supply capacity out there and not surplus demand. Which means that firms need less investment and more improvement in existent capital management / utilisation.

Technologically, we are not delivering a hell of a lot of new capacity for investment. Promising future technologies: AI-enabled robotics, 3-D printing, etc are still emerging and are yet to become a full mainstream. These are high risk technologies that are not exactly suited for taking over large scale capex budgets, yet.

Finally, fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies uncertainty is a huge headache across a range of sectors today. And we can add political uncertainty to that too. Take monetary uncertainty alone. We do not know 3-year to 5-year path for U.S. interest rates (policy rates, let alone market rates). Which means we have no decent visibility on the cost of capital forward. And we have a huge legacy debt load sitting across U.S. corporate balance sheets. So current debt levels have unknown forward costs, and future investment levels have unknown forward costs.

Just a few days ago I posted on the latest data involving U.S. corporate earnings (http://trueeconomics.blogspot.com/2016/09/7916-dont-tell-cheerleaders-us.html) - the headline says it all: the U.S. corporate environment is getting sicker and sicker by quarter.

Why would anyone invest in this environment? Even if oil is and energy are vastly cheaper than they were before and interest rates vastly lower...

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